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Laurie David: One Seriously 'Inconvenient' Woman

Celebrity activist Laurie David draws her share of jeers, but she's helped make climate change part of the pop-culture conversation.
Celebrity activist Laurie David draws her share of jeers, but she's helped make climate change part of the pop-culture conversation.

Laurie David has been called the high priestess of Hollywood activism: She's raised millions of dollars for environmental causes, helped bring Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth from lecture hall to big screen, and used pop-culture channels to spread the word about global warming. She's charming and persistent, and comedy, as you might expect from a woman married to one of the co-creators of Seinfeld, has been among her most powerful tools. So have the connections she's built over two decades in the entertainment business.

Make no mistake, David is well-connected. One of her first jobs, in the mid-1980s, was booking talent for Late Night with David Letterman. In 1993, she married Larry David, who created Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-created Seinfeld. When they moved to Los Angeles, she started her own business, managing comedians and comedy writers.

And when she started working on global warming, just about everyone Laurie David knew got a call.

"I'm gonna use all my resources," she says, unapologetically. "I'm gonna take advantage of all my friends."

Comedy, David says, is a "great way to get the message out," even when the message is a serious one. "Because if it's funny, it's always because there's a kernel of truth there."

Naturally, one of the first people David recruited was her husband. She's been demanding enough, in fact, that Larry David has made the misery of living with an environmental activist part of his stand-up routine. As it turns out, that fits in nicely with his wife's ambition — which, in her own words, is to "permeate popular culture" with information about global warming.

She's taken her message to fashion magazines, to Oprah, even to the soap opera The Bold & The Beautiful. David believes that climate-change activism can't simply be the domain of the environmental movement.

"Scientists have been warning us about this for a couple of decades, and nobody's listened," she says. "My goal was, let's get different messengers here. Let's get the message out in ways people don't expect to hear it."

In pursuit of that goal, David produced a cable comedy special called Earth To America a few years ago. Tom Hanks hosted, and the show featured a long roster of Hollywood talent: Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Wanda Sykes, Ray Romano and Cedric the Entertainer, among others, contributed live performances or videotaped sketches. The show was filmed before a live audience at the Celine Dion Theater in — of all places — Las Vegas.

"Perfect place," says David, crisply. "Go to the most extravagant place, where lights are left on — the waste, the consumption, that's the poster child of global warming."

The head writers for Earth to America (which is due out on DVD later this year) were Steve Skrovan from Everybody Loves Raymond and Scott Carter from Real Time With Bill Maher. Months before the show, they gathered at Laurie and Larry David's house, along with the comic minds behind The Simpsons and the movies of Jack Black and Will Ferrell. For one of the taped skits, four Republican congressmen agreed to be interviewed by humorist Robert Smigel — in the puppet persona of the cigar-chomping Rottweiler Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

With all of the celebrity events Laurie David has organized around global warming, she herself has become an easy target. A few years ago, Eric Alterman wrote a big article for The Atlantic Monthly on Hollywood activism. He took exception to the fact that back then, she was using a private plane — while publicly urging greater fuel economy. But Alterman does believe David has made a big difference.

"If you judge Laurie on how one citizen holding no office has managed to reach millions of people, then she deserves an enormous amount of credit," he says. "After Al Gore, she's probably done more than anyone in America."

And then there are the ripple effects of David's work. The smart-alecks at South Park parodied her in an episode called "Smug Alert." And the comic Sarah Silverman recently spoofed the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth.

"I was thrilled," David says. "Anytime anyone spoofs anything on global warming, it's good — it gets the word out."

David says there's nothing altruistic about her mission — that on a personal, self-interested level, she's simply terrified about the effects of global warming.

"I'm doing this for one reason only," she says. "All the things I personally care about are at stake here. Other than falling asleep at 9 p.m. on my wedding night, this is the most selfish thing I've ever done."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.